Apr 8, 2022 - Technology

Cars could get more dangerous before they get safer

Illustration of a steering wheel with an exclamation point in the center with hands on either side
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Automated driving features are supposed to make cars safer. But in the hands of drivers who put too much trust in those systems, or simply don't know how to use them, they could make the roads more dangerous instead.

Why it matters: Many new cars are equipped with automated driver-assistance features that people don't understand, or even worse, think they understand and then misuse with potentially dangerous consequences.

Reality check: No, your Tesla can't drive you home on Autopilot after a night at the bar.

  • Some drivers also become less vigilant behind the wheel, or drive more aggressively, when they think the robot has their back.

Driving the news: New research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that even after six months of use, people couldn't fully master advanced driver-assistance systems.

  • "This research suggests that today’s sophisticated vehicle technology requires more than trial-and-error learning to master it," said Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research.
  • "You can’t fake it ‘til you make it at highway speeds," he said, calling for more rigorous driver training.

Gaps in drivers' understanding of new technologies can have serious safety implications.

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating a series of deadly accidents involving Tesla vehicles equipped with Autopilot.
  • Among the issues is whether the design of the technology encourages driver misuse.
  • Safety advocates also argue that marketing terms like "Autopilot" and "Pro Pilot" breed driver complacency.

Between the lines: Researchers in the field of human factors — how people interact with machines — say there's not enough attention paid to the human element of automated driving.

  • As cars get more automated, the driver has less to do behind the wheel.
  • Instead drivers are relegated to the role of a monitor, whose job is to constantly watch for technology failures.
  • The problem is that people are not especially well-suited for such a tedious job, says assistant professor Michael Nees, an engineering psychologist at Lafayette College.
  • They tend to zone out when automated driving features are switched on and need up to 40 seconds to retake control of the car and resume normal driving tasks.

What they're saying: "It's amazing how far automated driving technology has come, and how quickly, but even if it is 99% reliable, that 1% multiplied across millions of people and miles and miles of roads is going to result in a nontrivial numbers of incidents," Nees tells Axios.

What to watch: In the next year or two, automakers will begin to introduce systems that are even more automated, allowing drivers to fully check out and read a book or watch a video in stop-and-go traffic.

  • The potential danger comes from "mode confusion" when it's time for the car to hand driving responsibility back to the human, Nees explains.
  • "There's a real risk that you have situations where the driver becomes confused about what mode the vehicle is in. If there's any ambiguity, you could have consequences."

The paradox of vehicle automation is that the more reliable it becomes, the less prepared drivers are for when it inevitably fails.

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